More than 11 years in the making, 'Dear Zoe' finally shoots in Pittsburgh

The setting: a nice house on a nice street not far from Carnegie Mellon University. The weather: not cooperating.

When production began in October on the feature film “Dear Zoe,” the area was enjoying a remarkable string of dry, sunny days. But by Day 21, there was snow on the ground.

Brenda Lhormer, who is producing the movie with her husband, Squirrel Hill native Marc Lhormer, laughed as she noted that for hours earlier on this bright but chilly day, workmen had taken snow blowers and heaters to the yard. It was supposed to be the first week of school for Tess, the teen at the center of the story set in September 2001.

“Dear Zoe” is the story of dealing with intimate tragedy amid the larger horrors of 9/11. It stars Sadie Sink (“Stranger Things”) as a girl in mourning for Zoe, her little sister.

For a few takes that Thursday afternoon, Sadie walked through a scene involving her screen dad and step-dad, played by Theo Rossi and Justin Bartha. Wearing just a light sweater, she gave little indication of what surely must have been a case of the chills.

What a long, strange journey it’s been, bringing this project to fruition. Aspinwall attorney Philip Beard II wrote “Dear Zoe,” his young adult novel, in the family home in Fox Chapel.

A bedroom provided him a quiet place to work, away from the daily ruckus of his blended family’s routine: wife Traci, step-daughter Cali Binstock and their daughters, Maddy and Phoebe. They say “write what you know,” and Mr. Beard knew mixed households. He based the character of Tess on Cali.

“Writers are listeners, writers are empaths. In some ways, we are actors. We inhabit other people, other characters,” he said. “People have asked, ‘How did you get into the head of a 15-year-old girl?’ I answer, ‘That was the easier part of writing the novel. I watched a 15-year-old girl every day.’

“What was more difficult were things like keeping 9/11 in the background, where Tess would have wanted it.”

It’s a Pittsburgh project shot mostly in Squirrel Hill, Braddock and, for the first two days, Kennywood Park. Mr. Beard’s wife worked at the lemonade stand there once upon a time, and in his literary world, Sadie and the delinquent young man of her fancy, Jimmy (newcomer Kweku Collins), have jobs there.

There is a scene where Jimmy takes Tess on Kennywood’s Skycoaster, which drops riders in a harness from 180 feet up. Jimmy doesn’t realize that Tess has been traumatized by the thought of people fall from great heights.

“She’s horrified but she’s putting on a brave face,” Mr. Lhormer said.

The did the actual drop five times that day. “Dear Zoe” also borrowed a Skycoaster harness and did green screen work at 31st Street Studios.

Mr. Beard brought Cali to the shoot on Day 1, where he took an iPhone picture of her and Sadie (“the movie Tess and the OG Tess, and that was great.”) His other daughters visited the set last weekend.

“There has been this sort of overreaching feeling for me these last few weeks, how surreal it is to watch the process. To show up at base camp and see all these trucks and all this equipment and all these people, food service and everything,” he said.

“All in service of this story I wrote by myself in a room 15 years ago.”

It took almost 11 years to get the film made after Zin Haze Productions bought the property. The Lhormers always planned to have it made it Pittsburgh, but that proved no simple feat.

Pittsburgh producer Carl Kurlander and Mr. Lhormer go way back: third grade at Shadyside Junior School. He arranged for the Lhormers and the Beards to meet. After a double date at the Coffee Tree Roasters on Walnut Street, a tentative deal was set.

But the project stalled a few times. At the time, Beard said he wasn’t comfortable with screenwriting. Producer and Carnegie Mellon University screenwriting professor Melissa Martin took a shot at it. Mr. Lhormer wrote subsequent versions. A number of potential directors came and went before Gren Wells landed the job.

“I did not expect this to be an 11-year journey, There’s been some frustration along the way,” Mr. Beard said.

What’s important, he said, is that it is here, and in the now. Production was scheduled to wrap this week.

Mr. Beard said he finished the book exactly one year after the events of 9/11, then sent it to his agent in New York City. “She said, ‘We love this, but New York is not ready for a 9/11 novel.’

“I said, ‘This is the opposite of a 9/11 novel.’”

It took a while for publishers to see the book for what it is: a coming-of-age story involving a family and tragedy on an intimate scale

Adapting the book wasn’t simple because it is Tess “talking” to her little sister. Is it one long letter from her? Or short chapters? In the end, Mr. Lhormer said, he envisioned it as one long “letter” with Tess telling her sister everything that’s happened in the past year.

Even the title of the book was up for debate. There is a comma after “Zoe” in the book, and in the opening credits. But for marketing purposes, the film is simply “Dear Zoe.

No matter how it’s spelled, it seems all concerned are practically giddy that it’s finally been made into a movie. Even by Hollywood development standards, 11 years is rather a long time.

Mr. Beard said perhaps it’s serendipity.

“The universe is a crazy place. But somehow it feels like it’s working out the way it’s supposed to be working out all along.”


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